When The Passion aired on Fox Sunday evening, March 20, nearly 7 million viewers tuned in to watch thousands of people process through the streets of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter. The marchers weren’t the usual revelers or bar patrons, though — they were carrying or accompanying a 20-foot lighted cross, headed toward Woldenberg Park on the Mississippi River. There, in front of New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral, film and musical star Tyler Perry hosted performers from a number of musical genres in a contemporary retelling of the Passion.
Lyrics to popular songs were given new meaning, as Trisha Yearwood (Mary), Chris Daughtry (Judas), Seal (Pontius Pilate) and Jencarlos Canela (Jesus) re-created the last hours of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The modern songs that were repurposed to fit The Passion included titles by Whitney Houston, Imagine Dragons, Katy Perry and Celine Dion.
Executive Producer Adam Anders and Perry, the host/narrator, had a noble goal: to reach not only Christians, but also the unchurched, those who have never heard the Gospel message.
But when the two-hour special was over, those people had enthusiastic partners to assist them in reflecting, praying and learning more.
Churches ‘After-Passion’ Events
New Orleans churches, both Catholic and Protestant, offered enthusiastic support for the project — helping to get the word out and sending volunteers to walk in the procession. At 9pm local time, when the stage performance ended, nearby churches threw open their doors for an “After-Passion” event, inviting the public to come inside to pray, to go to confession and to ask questions.
Maddy Thibodeaux, communications coordinator for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, talked with the Register about the event at St. Louis Cathedral, directly across the street from Woldenberg Park. Thibodeaux’s office had been involved in the planning from the beginning — working with The Passion production coordinator, coming together with other Christian churches and developing an outreach program using the hashtag #PassionNOLA.
“We just wanted to provide a Catholic presence,” she explained. “The archbishop was present; there were priests available in the cathedral to hear confessions and live worship music being played. People who stopped in to spend a moment in prayer and adoration were given a small candle as they entered, to light and to place near the altar” in the darkened cathedral.
New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond praised the program, which he watched live, calling it “very well done” and expressing his hope that viewers, especially youth and young adults, would better understand the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
“It helped young people to imagine how it might be,” Archbishop Aymond told the Register, “if Jesus were doing his ministry, preaching and healing, facing his passion and death in this day and time. It helped to bridge the gap of time in a profound way.”
Of course, the story of salvation is always relevant; but Archbishop Aymond was grateful that The Passion might, like the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, help some in the younger generation to perceive Jesus as truly connected to our present time.
The archbishop praised the production company’s choice of iconic New Orleans sites for filming pre-recorded segments; and he expressed surprise and happiness that the project gave so much attention to Jesus’ mother Mary. Country singer Yearwood, as Mary, sang four songs during the show, including a reprise of Lifehouse’s Broken, which she performed while leaning against the lit-up cross.
Archbishop Aymond counted “evangelization” among priorities emerging from a recent archdiocesan synod, which had as its theme “Encountering Christ and Witnessing With Joy.” Both the performance and the following event were an effective application of the New Evangelization, and the archbishop expressed confidence that it would bear fruit in people’s hearts.
A Hectic Procession — and a Serene Prayer Experience
For Heidi Scheuermann, one of the participants in the procession from the Louisiana Superdome to Woldenberg Park, the procession was unlike others in which she has participated in the past.
Scheuermann, who writes from New Orleans for BroadwayWorld.com, is always on the lookout for theatrical productions in town. She has a personal interest in theater, and she was raised Catholic, so she was enthused to learn about plans to produce The Passion in her native city. She and a group of friends signed up online to join the procession. Scheuermann was among the marchers who followed the cross to the stage at the park.
Scheuermann admitted that walking in the procession was not the religious experience she had envisioned; rather than a calm and collected walk, it was a chaotic experience because of the many technical requirements.
“We were walking down Bourbon Street on a weeknight,” she told the Register, “so people popped out of bars to line the streets or join the procession.” She reported that there were occasional fights, “because people do crazy things in the French Quarter.”
But more than just the influx of people dining and drinking in the French Quarter, Scheuermann reported, any attempt at prayerful meditation was interrupted by the technical requirements of the televised event.
“Stop here; wait here; now walk fast this way,” the marchers would be instructed. “No — stop here!”
There were television cameras along the way, and helicopters followed the procession to capture aerial shots. The process was technically challenging, and without any means of seeing the musical taking place concurrently in the park, Scheuermann felt removed from what was going on. She had recorded the program, and she looked forward to watching it later, in the peace and quiet of her own home.
But in contrast, Scheuermann found that the post-musical event was an opportunity to be still and reflect. She had been in the cathedral often, usually for Mass or a wedding; but it was nice, she said, to visit in the quiet of night. The cathedral was dark, with only a few low lights, so she could see where she was going.
She grabbed a candle from a box near the front and saw two priests hearing confessions. She enjoyed the praise-and-worship music played by New Orleans-based singers/speakers Greg and Lizzy Boudreaux. But for the most part, the cathedral lay quiet.
Scheuermann appreciated that many denominations, not just Catholics, joined together for this deeply spiritual event: “We’re a culturally Catholic city,” she explained, “but this brought together many denominations to focus on what we have in common — which is Jesus Christ. And I really liked that they put the modern twist on this, because it attracted people who probably would not be there otherwise.”
The Passion’s Anders, executive producer and executive music producer of the project, hoped that viewers would tune in and that success would lead the Fox Network to consider producing it on Palm Sunday next year in another city. “If you want this kind of wholesome TV,” he said, “to combat how much darkness there is out there ... let Fox know that you want more! You need to tell the networks that this is what you want!”
Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.